PARIS: France looked set to crown Francois Hollande as its first Socialist president in nearly two decades in an election on Sunday, marking a shift to the left at the heart of Europe and heralding a fight back against German-led austerity.
Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, swamped by anger at a surge in unemployment during his five-year term, faced being the 11th euro zone leader to be swept from power by the economic crisis after final opinion polls placed Hollande between four and eight points ahead.
A wide margin of victory would give Hollande greater authority to pursue a promise to temper unpopular German-led austerity, which sparked protests across southern Europe last
week, and refocus economic policy on fostering growth.
In a decisive day for the recession-hit single currency area, Greece's mainstream political parties were punished in a parliamentary election for rising economic misery due to
IMF-imposed spending cuts, exit polls showed.
Hollande cast his vote for the presidential runoff in the central town of Tulle, where he was mayor for seven years, shaking hands and kissing voters, many of whom he knows
personally. "I am confident. I am sure," he told Reuters as he ate later in a local restaurant packed with Tulle residents.
In Paris' Bastille square, a flashpoint of the 1789 French Revolution and the Socialists' traditional gathering point for electoral celebrations, crowd barriers were already laid out in
anticipation of an Hollande victory. Party supporters gathered in excitement two hours before the last polls closed, and giant television screens were erected.
In Tulle, Hollande supporters drove around the town honking car horns.
Sarkozy was greeted by cheering crowds when he arrived to vote at a school in an up-market Paris neighbourhood near the home of his wife Carla Bruni, a former supermodel.
"We are going to win" chanted supporters as the conservative leader briefly clasped the hands of well-wishers, but the glum faces of his advisers arriving at the Elysee presidential palace
in late afternoon told a different story.
With 46 million people registered to vote, polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and closed in most places at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) and two hours later in big cities.
Interior ministry figures showed 72.0 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) despite wet weather in much of the country, topping the 70.6 percent registered at the same stage of the first round on April 22.
Reliable projections of the result based on a partial count were due as soon as the last polling stations closed. Media that publish exit polls or partial results in France before then risk
fines and legal action.
Hollande, a mild-mannered career politician, has held a steady lead for weeks after outlining a comprehensive programme in January based on raising taxes, especially on high earners,
to finance spending and keep the public deficit capped.
As much as his own programme, he is benefiting from anti-Sarkozy sentiment due to the incumbent's abrasive personal style and to anger about the same economic gloom that has swept
aside leaders from Britain to Portugal.
"It will be close, much closer than polls have shown," said Moana de la Maisonneuve, 41, a commodities sales manager who voted for Sarkozy but was pessimistic about his chances. "The
tough thing for Sarkozy is that people are focusing on his personality, rather than his policies." AGENCIES